Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bookstore of the Month: Iconoclast Books

Iconoclast Books
671 Sun Valley Road
Ketchum, ID  83340
(202) 726-1564
Iconoclast Books on Facebook
Iconoclast Books on Twitter

For your health's sake...for complete relaxation and enjoyment...visit Sun Valley this winter.  It's a delightful, easy-to-take tonic...skiing, skating, warm-water, outdoor swimming and joyous evening hours.  Nature's big, white blanket soon will be spread.  Plan now to see this land of sun and fun in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.  A robust, western welcome awaits you!
--from an ad for Sun Valley ski resort in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Dec. 7, 1952

Drive up Idaho Highway 75, past the quaint towns of Bellevue and Hailey, along the Big Wood River (one of Ernest Hemingway's beloved trout streams), and into the shadows of Old Baldy and Dollar Mountain.  There, just when you think the forests, mountains and streams couldn't possibly be equalled in beauty, you'll discover they were just the prelude to Ketchum, Idaho, a jewel of a town set in the Sun Valley crown.

Ketchum is home to about 2,700 residents.  Make that 3,700 because Sarah Hedrick has the dynamic energy of 1,000 souls.  She is at the heart of Iconoclast Books--the Hope Diamond of Ketchum's crown jewels--and she is one of the most dedicated and tireless booksellers I've ever met.  On the June day I drove into Ketchum, it was raining in Sun Valley (Irony Alert!) and clouds had pulled a dark blanket over the town, but all the lights were on in the bookstore and Iconoclast fairly glowed on its corner of Ketchum's main street.  Somewhere inside the shop, I'm sure that electricity was caused by Sarah swirling and humming through the bookshelves, helping a customer find the best biography of Hemingway, recommending the latest staff pick (like Alexander Maksik's A Marker to Measure Drift), or frothing milk for a latte at the store's small cafe.  Though she has a great and equally-dedicated staff of booksellers (some of whom "came for the skiing and stayed for the books"), there's no getting around the fact that Sarah Hedrick is Iconoclast Books.

Sarah Hedrick and her daughter Penelope welcome Papa Hemingway to the store
I first met Sarah at the Humanities Montana Festival of the Book shortly after the publication of my debut novel, Fobbit.  I'd just given a reading and was sitting at the book-signing table when a slender blonde-haired woman came up, kneeled in front of the table, and took my hands.  "You must come to Sun Valley."  Did I mention Sarah is also a one-woman Chamber of Commerce for Ketchum?  Just like those Union-Pacific posters which called the rich and famous to come play at the Sun Valley Ski Resort back in the 1940s, I was being summoned to the mountains of Idaho.  How could I possibly resist?  (It took nearly eight months, but I eventually did make my way to Sun Valley and gave a reading at the Community Library and then splurged an appropriate amount of money on books at Iconoclast the next day.)

In preparing for this Bookstore of the Month post, I asked Sarah to tell me a little bit about what the store has to offer. Here's what she wrote in an email: "We encourage intellectual curiosity.  We pride ourselves on being unique and going beyond the bestseller selection. New, used and rare titles, Hemingway and Idaho history, book clubs, magazines, gifts, stationery, candles, educational games and toys, and more. Our cafe features locally roasted coffee, local organic dairy, homemade chai, organic teas, smoothies, fresh-baked goodies, bagels, homemade soup, paninis and salads. We specialize in unique cards, gifts, candles and host the area's largest children's section--from baby gifts and board books to a phenomenal Young Adult selection, with everything in between. We host author events, Poetry Slams, music events, Open Mic Nights, book club discussions and educational events. We are also very fortunate to be a part of so many great partnerships with arts and non-profit organizations in the community, like the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, The Sun Valley Center for the Arts/Company of Fools, and The Community Library."

Iconoclast Books, now occupying 4,800 square feet, began in the trunk of a car in the University District in Seattle. Here's a bit of the store's history, taken from its website: "Iconoclast Books was founded in 1993, to very little fanfare. After many years of working in restaurants and bike shops in Ketchum, Gary Hunt, a practicing ski bum, set out to find his niche in life. He traveled. He worked in more restaurants and bike shops. He grew weary of that and more importantly, he felt vaguely unfulfilled. He had a friend, Royce Wilson, who managed a used bookstore in the University district of Seattle and they would often talk late into the evening over red wine or scotch while Royce outlined the basics of the used book business to Gary. This led to a period of a few months in which Gary went around to garage sales and thrift stores buying books and selling them, or attempting to sell them, to used bookstores throughout the city. This is what is known as book scouting, and Gary discovered that he had a certain knack for it....It wasn't long before a tidy little stack of boxes of books had been built up and they no longer fit into the trunk of the car. And so Iconoclast Books was born. At first it was just on weekends in the street market on Capitol Hill, with weekdays devoted to scouring the yard sales for choice inventory. By the end of the summer there were enough boxes of books built up to open our first store, in Greenlake, a suburb of Seattle."

Eventually, Gary grew restless and in 1994 he decided to head back to Sun Valley (remember, he was a "practicing ski bum"). He landed in a basement studio of about 800 square feet off 4th Street where he could sell used and out-of-print books.  Somewhere along the line, he met Sarah (then a bookseller at, um, The Book Cellar).  They fell in love, got married and joined forces at the revitalized Iconoclast.  The business grew and moved from one location to another, adding new books, magazines, and gifts. Iconoclast Books spent five years in the historic Griffith building on Main Street in Ketchum before moving into its present location on Sun Valley Road at the end of 2007. Sadly, Gary was killed in a car accident less than a year later.  Even from the dark valley of her grief, Sarah has carried on Gary's drive and vision for the store.

I'm going to turn the rest of this section of the blog post over to Sarah because, frankly, I couldn't have described the store or the current state of bookselling any better than she did in an email to me yesterday....

*     *     *

Our philosophy is along the lines of this: anyone can sell New York Times bestsellers; we want to introduce you to something about which you haven’t already heard. We want to be relentlessly current and honor the classics.  We want to help you find you that rare book you remember from your childhood. We want your experience in a beautiful space--with a curated selection of books, beautiful music playing (often live on our “Dead Man’s Piano”), the smell of house-made chai being steamed, and a wise and well-read staff--to be so wonderful that you wouldn’t even consider an Amazon experience.

I think bookstore customers in general are the best out there.  Think about it: they’re intellectually curious, they’re usually not in a hurry, they are CHOOSING to be in a real store and not at their computer or in a fluorescently-lit box store (we like to say it’s the difference between a fine dining experience and fast food) and they’re buying something that is going to enlighten them, make them laugh, weep or think. This is an entirely different experience than buying most other retail items.

In a small valley we’re so grateful to our customers, not only for choosing us as the place to buy books, but because in a small town, they’ve become our friends and in some cases, our family.  We have some of the most curious and intelligent people coming through our doors and we not only get to help them, we learn from them. We have time to chat, to get to know their tastes, to remember what their spouses loved to read last month, or what we chose for their grandchildren. Because of the café we have people who stay for hours and hours. We have a customer we call “The Moon Man” because in the winter days when my daughter Penelope was a toddler, he’d take her outside and show her the early evening moon and recite “I love the moon and the moon loves me.” She’s now 8 years old and still brings him every book with moon in the pictures or title to read to her. These people are raising my children with me!

There's no way to choose the most rewarding thing about being a bookseller, but maybe one part of it can be found in this email from an employee the night before he left the country for a trip abroad:
Dear Sarah,
      I really want to thank you. Working at Iconoclast has been one of the best things that's happened to me. I don't think many people can say they love going to work, and I feel lucky that I can. I feel so much love from you and the people around me everyday. There's nothing more important than that. Working at Iconoclast I've grown as a person. I've become a reader, and have a deep appreciation for books that I couldn't have gotten elsewhere, and will have for the rest of my life. You've also given me the gift of travel. Letting me leave for 7 months and having a job I love waiting when I come home is invaluable. It's allowed me to live the life I want to live. There's no amount of quotes, novels, or libraries to express how grateful I am. You've changed my life.
      So really, truly, thank you Sarah, you're a great boss, and an even better friend.
Or maybe it's in this moment when, driving up to my store one day this summer, I saw a pre-teen girl having her photograph taken in front of the store’s sign like she was being photographed with Justin Bieber...I asked about it and she nearly screamed/wept: “Because I’ve been able to visit bookstores all over the world, and THIS IS MY FAVORITE. My friends will be so jealous when they see this.”

I now have a toddler customer who comes in once a week with his father, hollers a hello to “Uncle Sarah” and makes a beeline to my (now almost 18 year old) son’s wooden train set in the children’s section while telling his father which books to grab to read to him. His father has been a customer since his teens, buying Bukowski. From Bukowski to Board Books...

Three nights ago, I left work after a 14-hour Black Friday, which included an Open Mic Night of prose, poetry and LOTS of music, including a trio with a stand-up bass. We had a full house and the performances ranged from an 8-year-old telling jokes, to a 16-year-old singing and playing the ukulele, to a gray-haired, conservatively dressed father getting up there with an acoustic guitar and blowing us away (we found out later it was Dave Dederer, formerly of the Seattle rock band The Presidents of the United States of America). I went outside to my car at one point and what I saw from the outside made me nearly weep.  This beautifully-lit store with silver snowflakes hanging in the windows--it was packed with people, books, ideas, music, old and new friends, and three of my own children.  I just felt full, nourished and proud. We do good things inside those brick-and-mortar walls. So on my exhausted, I-can’t-keep-up-this-pace, drive home, I realized I can. I love it too much and we’re good at it.

I also love watching someone’s face light up when you finally nail the book they didn’t know they were looking for until you describe it and place it in their hands. Or the kid who calls my home, late in the evening with a shaking voice, “Sarah, do you have the third book in the Divergent trilogy at home? Or at The Modern Mercantile?  I am three blocks away....” (You can substitute that with Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter, Series of Unfortunate Events, etc.)  It happens more times than you'd think and it's been this way for decades. You gotta love small towns.

Alexander Maksik signing books at Iconoclast
We’ve hosted so many amazing events it’s hard to choose. We’ve danced on table tops with Alex Kuczynski (author of Beauty Junkies), we’ve watched Billy Collins sing “Mustang Sally,” and I can remember making Pete Fromm nearly cry many years ago when he showed up at the store and we had a guitarist walking around strumming while a packed house of eager Fromm fans drank wine and nibbled cheese before his event. We go out of our way for authors because we realize we're off the beaten path. We found a Polish speaking ski instructor for Anne Applebaum’s kids when she came here, we took Jonathan Evison to every single Hemingway watering hole and closed down Ketchum, and we’ve called in favors to the best restaurants that were booked solid just to get a table for Walter Kirn. We’ll score you lift tickets, concert tickets, sometimes a funky condo.

*     *     *

I can testify to Iconoclast's Author TLC.  More than six months after Sarah first grabbed my hands and insisted I come to Sun Valley, my wife Jean and I drove our car off that beaten path and visited Ketchum for an all-too-brief stay.  Sarah did indeed arrange for us to stay at a friend's condo (an elegant place which was far from funky) and made sure everything was set up for me at the Community Library's lecture room (which is a bland name for what turned out to be a gorgeous auditorium--all the more impressive given the small size of the town).  The next day, Sarah even made us some of her Idaho-famous lattes (did I detect a hint of potato in the foam?).

While Jean and Sarah chatted about mutual vintage mercantile interests (Jean had just opened The Backyard Bungalow in here in Butte, Montana, and Sarah is the proud owner of the Modern Mercantile in Hailey), I wandered the store, browsing the books.  I zeroed in on the Hemingway section--an entire wall of shelves dedicated to the author who lived in Sun Valley off and on for part of his life and chose this mountainous Garden of Eden as the place where he'd end it with an early-morning shotgun blast.  While I didn't find exactly what I was looking for (a book specifically about Hem's Ketchum days), my eye was caught by another book on display near Iconoclast's front door: The Sun Valley Story by Van Gordon Sauter.  Perfect.

For those of you with even a passing interest in the ski resort's history, I highly recommend this sumptuously-illustrated account of the valley's history--its rise from a sheepherding crossroads to a multi-million-dollar winter wonderland where stars like Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood and Jamie Lee Curtis came to play.  Sauter emphasizes Sun Valley's self-made entrepreneurship and resilience even during economic downturns.  Bottom line, the region's successful legacy begins and ends with the mountains and rivers, the solid foundation of nature which will never change.

Except when it does.

Resiliency and nature collided in Sun Valley this past summer, two months after my visit.  Six years after the devastating Castle Rock Fire roared over the mountains and down into the lowlands, flames once again threatened Ketchum, Hailey and the other small towns dotting the valley floor.  The Beaver Creek Fire forced hundreds of evacuations this past August and brought everything to a standstill--at a time when Sun Valley normally depended on heavy tourism traffic.

Most of us (myself included) hear about these things and while we may pause to read the headline stories and feel a little pinch of sympathy inside, the truth of the matter is, we turn the page of the newspaper, go on eating our toast and eggs and rarely give the ashes of Sun Valley forests a second thought.  Until, that is, someone takes us by the shoulders, gets all up in our face, and tells us that we should care.  Such a thing happened to me when I read the following heartfelt note Sarah included in her bookstore newsletter a few weeks after the fires had been extinguished.  I'll close with Sarah's words in hopes that, like me, you will be moved to help out the store with a donation or--as I did--by ordering a few books from Iconoclast instead of that Other Place which rhymes with Shamazon.

*     *     *

I've been ruminating for weeks on thoughts and the proper way to put them into words about the impact of the Beaver Creek Fire on our community, to my store and to my family. I've been interviewed many times--locally and nationally--and have (this should come as no surprise) worn my heart on my sleeve and often, possibly, said too much. The focus of many of these conversations has been about devastation: The damage to our beautiful landscape and the impact of that on our economy, the repercussions that losing the busiest three weeks of our season has on a budget that absolutely depends on tourism, the trickle-down effect of what occurs when a store loses necessary income and can no longer support the causes it normally does; the struggles with paying employees, vendors, taxes, rent and utilities. Sometimes, I've imagined the loss of the store.

Tonight, I want to tell the good stories and I hope you'll bear with me. I've thought a lot about the last 6 years--the Castle Rock Fire from which we're still not recovered as evidenced by still paying off the disaster relief loan from the Small Business Administration, the death of my husband and true iconoclast behind the store, the loss of our locally-owned bank which carried our credit lines so that we could get through slack seasons, the recession that hit not long after Gary's death, the egregious efforts of Amazon to destroy brick-and-mortar stores of all kinds, and yes, I have a hard time with that little Kindle.

Despite all of these obstacles, I am awake at midnight feeling invigorated about Monday morning--mostly because I adore what I do and also because I have a lot of great ideas AND I have a few beautiful stories to tell.  They may not save the store, but they have nourished my soul on sad days and reminded me why I do what I do, seven days a week.

In no particular order and because no monetary value can be attached to goodwill.

1.  During the evacuation I received a Facebook message from a stranger in Twin Falls: "Sarah, I know we're only fb friends but I love your store and all that you do for your community and book lovers. I was in the mall today and heard that all hotels are booked in Boise and Twin. If you and your children need a place to stay, we have a guest room for you. We'd love to have you."

2.  Numerous, and I mean numerous, offers similar to this from all over Idaho and beyond.

3.  This week, an online order from the Stanley Library for 25 books, all of which could've been purchased at cost through a book distributor. Yesterday an online order came in, for one book, with this message: "I'm a bookseller in California and I just heard about the wildfires in your area. I so hope things start looking better soon. Solidarity!"

4.  And a story that I hope goes viral, not for the benefit of Iconoclast Books, but because I hope people who are able will be inspired to support all local businesses--and for those of us who cannot, will remember it and do something similar in another way, down the road. Most of us know Carol and Len Harlig as they've been figures in and pillars of this community for decades; they're kind, generous and passionate about our valley, giving of themselves in more ways than this email will allow. I've known them for nearly 24 years and they never cease to amaze me. Read on...

This is what they've done and how Len explained it to me: "Carol and I sat down the other night and identified businesses that we're concerned about as well as the people we're grateful to in our valley, especially the fire fighters who saved our community. We would like to support and thank a few." The Harligs proceeded to spend a very generous amount of money at Iconoclast Books, citing us as a business they consider to be one of many that are integral to our community and they couldn't envision being without.

Clearly I wanted to give Carol and Len a public thank you without embarrassing them.  In their graceful way, they stated that they don't want acclimation for this gesture, but in hopes that others would do something similar, I was free to share. In Len's words:
      Our "plan" is to buy $1,000 worth of $100 gift certificates at local businesses for five months, thereby helping local businesses to survive until the snow flies, and by gifting the cards to emergency responders (firefighters first, law enforcement next, hospital workers third, and then another round for firefighters and law enforcement), as a way to thank the women and men who did so much for so many. (Apologies to Winston for the paraphrase).
      Our first thought was to do this below the radar as neither of us seeks publicity for our community efforts, but if getting the word out will encourage other residents to shop locally or to do something similar to our "plan" then we'd give up a little privacy for the higher cause. Maybe we can start a movement and help revitalize our local economy. "OCCUPY MAIN STREET!"
Need I say more about this incredible community and state we live in?  Yes, I want my store to survive this latest tragedy, not just because I want a job I love and appreciate, but because it allows me to live and raise my children in a community full of so many creative, smart and caring people in hopes that they'll continue in that vein for the rest of their lives.

Iconoclast Books is the featured bookstore all this month at The Quivering Pen.  By clicking on the links to books mentioned in this month's blog posts, you'll be taken to the store's website where you can purchase the book (or, better yet, several books).  The Quivering Pen is dedicated to supporting independent bookstores.

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